5 Engaged Learning Strategies – Students’ Views from Successful Online Courses

27 Mar

The Pedagogical Innovations Journal club met in March to discuss the article “Promoting engagement in online courses – What strategies can we learn from three highly rated MOOCS.” The 2016 article, by Khe Foon Hew was published in the British Journal of Educational Technology.

The author wanted to identify the design factors that are most valued by participants in terms of promoting an engaging online learning experience. Identifying these factors could help instructors create better online courses to help their students learn. The author took a reverse engineering approach by examining students’ comments in the most highly participant-rated MOOCs posted on Coursetalk, a website designed to find and review online courses and MOOCs.

Three courses were identified for further study:

  • An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python – Rice University
  • Modern & Contemporary American Poetry – the University of Pennsylvania
  • Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society – the University of Pennsylvania

Specifically, Foon Hew was looking for design factors the participants perceived as engaging. The author analysed feedback from 965 participants and came up with five elements these courses had in common.  They are listed below in the order of the number of students who described that element as positive for their learning experience:

  • Problem-oriented learning with clear and comprehensive expositions
  • Instructor accessibility and passion
  • Peer interaction
  • Active learning
  • Course resources to address participant learning needs

Below are definitions of each one with examples drawn from the three courses and suggestions for how to apply the element to your own online teaching.

  1. Problem-oriented learning with clear and comprehensive expositions

The goal of problem-oriented learning is to equip students with skills to solve real world problems. The three courses concentrated on problems students might face in the real world and taught them the skills they would need to solve the problem. Clear and comprehensive exposition refers to simple to understand ideas and procedures.

Examples of successful problem-oriented learning student identified, include the following: In the programming class this took the form of having students design simple computer games throughout the course. After each new module of material, students were instructed to create a game using the principles they just learned.

In the poetry class this took the form of having students understand and use the inquiry process that scholars would use to analyze poems. In the design class this took the form of using real-world problems as examples of the application of design approaches, rather than just making something that is aesthetically pleasing.

One way to approach creating something like this for your course would be to consider what professionals do in your field. Do they analyze and interpret data? Do they make recommendations based on incomplete evidence? Do they analyze and interpret historical documents? Choose a skill appropriate for your discipline and create a problem or project that would allow students to practice and acquire that skill.

  1. Instructor accessibility and passion

Instructor accessibility refers to the willingness of the instructor to interact with students during the course. Lack of instructor accessibility is a common complaint students have about their online (and face-to-face) courses. Passion refers to the instructor’s enthusiasm for teaching the subject.

Instructor accessibility was enacted in the following ways in courses the author studied: in the computer programming class when the instructor set up an online “Code Clinic” that he hosted along with professional help desk personnel. This service allowed students to email their code and receive help on problem areas. In the poetry class, the instructor organized live, weekly webcasts to directly answer student questions. In the design class the instructor set up an “Urgent Matters and Technical Issues” forum for students to receive help in a time-sensitive manner.

An additional way to accomplish this in your online course is to create virtual office hours where you are present in a live discussion forum each week. In this forum students can receive immediate responses to their questions. Your responses are also an opportunity to highlight your enthusiasm for the subject.

  1. Peer interaction

Student feedback indicated that they enjoyed the ability to interact with their peers during the courses.

In examples from the examined courses, discussion forums were a common way for peers to interact. In the poetry class students were assigned five assignments to peer-review. A forum was created to allow students to follow up and seek more information from their reviewers. In the computer programming class this took the form of a forum set up to allow students to discuss quiz questions. Students were allowed to post as much information as they wanted for their fellow students short of giving them the answers to the quiz questions.

Peer review is one way to accomplish this in your course. To ensure that students receive high quality feedback from their classmates, create specific rubrics to guide peer review and have multiple students review each student’s work, as the instructors of some of these classes did.

  1. Active learning

Active learning was defined as “any task or activity that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” Active learning may seem challenging to accomplish in an online course, but it can be done as evidenced by the examples below.

This was accomplished in the computer programming course through the use of assigned weekly mini-projects that required students to build real interactive games based on the concepts taught. To support students the instructor ensured that everything they needed to complete the project was covered in the lesson. He also provided an example walk-through of the strategy required, and provided a template with a general outline of the algorithm needed for the project. In the poetry class students were required to write four different essays describing how certain words and phrases were used to support the central meaning of the poem. The design course employed weekly assignments that covered weekly key concepts and also built on previous assignments to create an actual artifact by the end of the class.

To do this in your course, have students do or create something. They may solve problems, answer thought questions, or engage in dialogue with each other, you, or outside experts. Ensure that students receive timely feedback on their work.

  1. Course resources to address participant learning needs

All three courses provided a common core of additional resources to support the diverse learning needs of enrolled students. These resources included making slides and notes or transcripts from lectures available for students to revisit, and noting further relevant resources including options readings and videos, and glossaries of course-related terms.

The instructors moved beyond these core resources in multiple ways. For example, the computer programming course, the instructor addressed the learning needs of more advanced students by organizing a “Hall of Fame” challenge. In this optional class forum more advanced students were encouraged to go beyond the basic mini-projects. Original games with the most “up votes” were posted by the instructor. Likewise, the instructor of the design class organized an optional Innovation Tournament Challenge where students were tasked with creating a “carrying device for ‘an armful’ of stuff that is almost invisible to the user when not in use.”

In your own online teaching you can make your slides and lecture notes available to students. Provide answer keys for homework, quizzes, and exams. You might also consider including optional background and advanced resources for your students.

The author concludes that this study points to the important role that instructors, course resources, and pedagogic practices that focus on providing problem-centric and active learning play in engaging online students. Hopefully, the examples presented here will provide you with some ideas for your own online teaching.


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